My mother lived and died with class.
She was a link to a certain kind of past and that is part, but only part, of why I mourn my mother, Beatrice or “Beattie” as she liked to be called, or Grandma Bea, my kids’ moniker.
Just days before she slowly and peacefully slipped away in a morphine-induced state of unconsciousness, the disease that had presented itself as cancer 23 years ago had resurfaced with a vengeance. She had been left back then without a jaw, which she had reconstructed so it resulted in a crooked smile. Yet, she managed with her sense of style still to look beautiful. This time around, however, there was no acceptable solution and she was unable to eat, drink, or sleep comfortably. At 92-years-old and with unrelenting cancer, she knew death was imminent. The squamous cell head and neck carcinoma was spreading aggressively and faster than fear.
Did she fear death? At that point, she almost welcomed it to obviate the pain. She had lived a full life and was grateful for the gifts of her four children, a devoted husband who had died three years ago, and six grandchildren. All of us will be bereft forever of her company – her colorful mind, infectious laughter, impeccable taste, and talents for decorating tastefully and dressing fashionably.
Not too many people knew that she had always wanted to be an actress, move to New York City in an era when proper young women married, and had kids. Her parents protested. So after growing up in Philadelphia, marrying a man she met on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, then eventually moving to the Midwest for his work, she began to perform and direct community-based variety shows to raise funds for various charities. Much later in her life, at age 50, she got her real-estate license and sold residential housing. She was one of the most successful agents in the city for 14 years.
My mother was, as a friend said, “the best in show.” Now the curtain has closed on her final act. She was a connection to a time, an era that was more dignified, more private, and in which standards of behavior were higher and clearer. Elegance when she grew up, and which she continued to demonstrate, reflected a time when people tried to dress up their worlds in all sorts of ways. She had impeccable manners, the kind that remind us that they spring from a certain moral view….being correct and showing respect by sending a handwritten note and flowers. A friend of hers who came to the Shiva said, with a soft, sad voice, that what we’re losing is what so many of us used to long for: the old notion of being cultivated. She was in her behavior, looks (tall for her time at 5 feet 7 inches with perfect posture), and values an aristocrat—with a voracious appetite for good literature and lifestyle magazines, beautiful antiques, huge collections of hats, paperweights, art, designer clothes, furnishings, and jewelry. As one of my sisters noted, “There wasn’t a jewelry store, art gallery, or antique shop she could pass without going inside and often purchasing something.”
Throughout my life, I observed what she did, learned from it what to do—and not to do, tried to follow many of her choices, but not all. Her favorite cliché was: “Do as I say not do as I do.” She would not dare show her vulnerabilities…undone hair, sloppy clothes, and even her tenderness and her despair. I rarely dress up and tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve. She was also brutally direct which she’d say was honesty. That honesty hurt so many times and often resulted in friends never speaking to her again and vice versa. She also would shut down if one of her children disagreed with her and not talk to us for days, weeks, months and once, in my case, two years.
We were oil and water at times with very different values about money, people, relationships, and politics. I never cared about having designer clothes or fancy jewelry. She was a bit of a snob – “You’re going where with whom? Why are associating with that person?” “What do you mean you don’t want to join the country club?” “When I was growing up, she was a Kennedy liberal who, as she aged, morphed into a conservative Republican. Why? She said because the Republicans care more about Israel; Israel’s survival was one of her passions. She supported it and many Jewish and non-sectarian causes quite generously.
As I reflect on her accomplishments, I think her supreme gift to us was the bond she fostered among my two sisters, one of whom is 14 years younger than I am, and our only brother. We are still very close and have a great deal of trust, respect and love for each other. And that I feel is her greatest legacy.
So, how do I accept that my mother with whom I had a love-hate relationship for so long until she mellowed in her final years is no longer here? As the only one of her children who lived in the same city, she desperately needed me. Although I was loathe admitting it, I needed her – still looking for that unconditional approval that came close, but slightly missed the mark as she always managed to slip in a zinger, “Meg, are you using cream on your neck? It’s getting so wrinkled,” she’d say in a hypercritical tone.
Regardless, I will miss my go-to-person for so many things, including what was the proper attire for a formal or ceremonial event. In fact, the morning I dressed for her funeral, unwittingly I picked up the phone to tell her what I was wearing to see if it was appropriate and to ask what jewelry I should add. This will be a difficult habit to break, very much like our similar addiction to sugar.
More than anything, Beattie was the last of her generation in our family. Now, I am the eldest member of my generation, a fact that means facing my own mortality.
Life simply won’t be the same without Queen Bea. Rest in peace.
Love from your eldest daughter, Margaret Ellen